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HFS Fans: Adult Alternative Returns, Sort Of

Fans of acoustic rock, folk and blues in the Washington area have been bereft of a home on the FM band since the demise of WHFS last year. Now public radio station WAMU, which itself jettisoned bluegrass music to go all news and talk in 2001, is teaming up with an adult alternative station in Towson, Md., to bring the acoustic sound back to the nation's capital.

But before anyone starts to cheer for the return of a station that plays a mix that includes Dave Matthews, The Bridge, John Fogerty, Suzanne Vega, Moby, Beck, The Kooks and The Killers--to name a few groups whose work aired on the Towson station's morning show yesterday--a word of warning: The new WAMU second channel, which launches today, will be available only to folks who have bought the new digital radios, which are being sold as "HD Radio" and will set you back a good $300.

If there are even one thousand owners of HD radios in the metropolitan area, I will eat a printout of this post. Still, the broadcast radio biz, eager to show some signs of creative life while fighting the competition from iPods and satellite radio, is betting on this new technology, which allows existing radio stations to create second and third channels. In WAMU's case, you tune to 88.5 FM and find not only the station that's available on any old FM radio, but also WAMU-2, which will be a simulcast of the programming that Baltimore area rock fans find on WTMD (89.7 FM up there.) The sound quality is very good, but so far, there are only a few models of HD radios on the market, and they are pricey and cumbersome, limited to table radios and a few car stereos.

WTMD general manager Stephen Yasko tells me that "this unique partnership will drive sales of HD radio. Most other HD programming is either jukeboxes or national services. This is the first time two stations have partnered to create a local service. WTMD has always seen Washington as part of its local area since so many of the bands we play perform at 930 or the Black Cat. So WAMU gets a very local sounding radio station for their HD side channel and we believe listeners will find that appealing enough to invest in an HD radio."

We shall see. If you do happen to have or plan to get an HD radio, you'll likely find something interesting happening on the new WAMU-2. The Towson station not only produces about 16 hours a day of its own music programming, with a heavy emphasis on the local music scene, but also carries some of the best public radio music shows, most of which are not heard in the Washington area. That means programs such as World Cafe, a collection of world and acoustic tunes from WXPN in Philadelphia, and Sounds Eclectic, Nic Harcourt's splendid mix of music from KCRW in Santa Monica.

Will listeners decide to spend a few hundred on a radio that promises to deliver some of the formats that you'd have to shell out $13 a month to hear on XM or Sirius satellite radio? It hardly seems likely as long as the offerings on HD radio are as thin as they are now, but this technology is in its infancy, and the price and variety of the radios will improve, as should the programming on the new second channels. The battle is just beginning.


By Marc Fisher |  November 14, 2006; 1:24 PM ET
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On a related point, is there any hope anytime soon for a return of good classical music to the DC area? Since WETA became all yack all the time (even with a call-in show, the final degradation!!), and WGMS continues to broadcast only top-40 hits ("all Pachalbel all the time") on a bad signal with inane advertising, DC has got to be the only major metropolitian area in the country with no classical music to speak of. San Antonio, Baltimore, San Diego, Atlanta, and St Louis still have classical noncommercial radio that seems to be thriving. I simply can't believe that people want to listen to non-stop news and 'talk' all day long!

Posted by: Phil | November 14, 2006 1:34 PM

Do either of these stations have internet radio capabilities? Something along the lines of WOXY.com. I would think that that would drive interest if people could listen at work or at home. If they like what they hear they would be more inclined to purchase a unit so they could listen in their car.

Posted by: Chris | November 14, 2006 2:56 PM

WTMD is great! I dated a woman in Baltimore and didn't mind driving up that way since I could listen to WTMD (and WRNR... the place where the REAL 'HFS went). This is the kind of thing that will get me interested in HD radio.

I also listen to WOXY (and SOMA and my own college station, WCWM) at work on line. What I'd like to be able to do is listen to these online stations on my car radio.

Posted by: Tom | November 14, 2006 3:01 PM

But hey, if you live in Columbia and work in Bowie, you get to switch from TMD to RNR, back and forth. Who needs sat radio or HD? I haven't listened to WAMU since they gave Lee Michael Dempsey the shaft, anyway; at least some of the "alternative" music community must feel the same way.

Posted by: dynagirl | November 14, 2006 3:38 PM

Internet radio is the way to go if you're stationary. Podcasts otherwise. There's a lot of free media out there.

Posted by: mark | November 14, 2006 3:44 PM

Fans of acoustic rock, folk and blues in the Washington area have been bereft of a home on the FM band long before HFS became El Sol.

Posted by: BF | November 14, 2006 3:49 PM

My son (19) laments the fact that the only station left that plays "his" music (we live in Gaithersburg) is DC101. I keep telling him that HD Radio is going to be his salvation. This is vindication of that theory.

Posted by: music fan | November 14, 2006 5:18 PM

Cool - maybe a new TV network will pop up next, showing re-runs of Fox and UPN shows, but only in High Defnition. Broadcast media are just full of brilliant ideas these days.

Posted by: YAWN! | November 14, 2006 6:26 PM

There are some stations that have potential to be good but like the first poster stated, there is too much talking throughout the broadcast. I like classic rock and 106.9 plays pretty good classic rock, but the morning dj is somewhat of a blowhard that is too liberal with his opinions of everything. I would rather just listen to cds.

Posted by: opinions are like.. | November 14, 2006 8:21 PM

Ok, so does that mean WETA is going to start a second channel to play classical music? No. Because they're jerks.

Posted by: h3 | November 15, 2006 10:08 AM

Chris-

WTMD streams online at wtmd.org using WMA and Real Player. WAMU-Ch2 streams at http://wamu.org/about/engineering/digital/ using MP3, WMA and Real Player.

Wish WRNR streamed; they used to, but ditched sometime after the voice-over actors started their fight to get paid for ads played over the web in addition to over the air.

WXPN is also exceptional - xpn.org

Posted by: Pete | November 16, 2006 11:33 AM

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